Painter’s model and poet: Paul Roche

Canvas Issue 23 by Paul E.H. Davis

Shortly before Paul Roche’s death, aged 91,on 30 October 2007, Darren Clarke, Charleston’s Visitor Manager, went to Mallorca to interview him and record his memories of Duncan Grant and Charleston.

Before considering the true relationship between Paul Roche and Duncan Grant – best explained by reference to Grant’s unpublished novella about Patroclus and Narcissus – we should examine the life of the man some referred to as ‘The Bloomsbury Poet’.

Paul Roche in the Studio at Charleston, by kind permission of Pandora Smith

Paul Roche in the Studio at Charleston, by kind permission of Pandora Smith

Donald Robert Paul Roche was born on 25 September 1916 in Mussorie, India. His father was a captain in the Royal Engineers and later worked for the Great India Peninsular Railways. His mother, Roberta Arathoon, daughter of an Armenian aristocrat, died of smallpox when Roche was nine. Roche was sent to board at the Catholic Ushaw College in Durham, England, and was soon captivated by Catholic ritual. He later attended Ealing Priory School in West London (where his father had moved, having remarried) before going on to St Edmund’s College, Ware.

In 1936, after consulting Cardinal Hinsley, Archbishop of Westminster, Roche went to study at the Jesuit-run English College (part of the Pontifical Gregorian University) in Rome, where he graduated in Philosophy and Theology. In 1940, on returning to England, Roche began training at the Jesuit-run St Mary’s Hall, Stonyhurst, and was ordained in 1943. He served as chaplain to three convents in Isleworth and, despite increasing doubts about his vocation, was made personal assistant to Cardinal Griffin, the new Archbishop of Westminster.

It was at this time that Roche first met Grant:

PR: The scene was Piccadilly Circus on a summer’s evening in July 1946, [the] warm air throbbing with the swirling traffic. I stood on the north side … waiting for a chance to cross. … I saw out of the corner of my eye an elderly gentleman waiting to cross. He was wearing a slightly shabby but obviously hand-tailored grey tweed suit and a polka-dot blue tie negligently knotted. … I had on a sleeveless navy blue nylon shirt and black pants. I was in my middle twenties but so youthfully retarded that I could be taken for eighteen – he in turn looked much older than he was…

As we plunged across the Circus, more or less together, he darted me a look in which I thought I saw something tenderly curious and questioning. He wanted me to be the first to speak when we arrived, panting as it were, in the safe haven of Dunn’s hat-shop … ‘That was difficult,’ I said. ‘Indeed, it was’ – so began our first exchange in our relationship which, thirty-two years later, was to leave my universe shattered and sodden with absence and mourning.

They spent the rest of the day at Grant’s pied-a-terre, Edward Le Bas’ flat in Bedford Square, discussing pictures and drinking whisky before Grant made a request of Roche:

PR: He asked me to come the next day and begin modelling for him. … Though it was the summer, two things I realised as a model: you soon get tired of even the very easy pose… [and] it seems warm but you begin to feel cold.

Roche’s modelling for Grant (he also modelled for Le Bas and Vanessa Bell) lasted for several decades. In 1961, he modelled as Christ for Grant’s controversial mural in the Russell Chantry, Lincoln Cathedral:

PR: The Dean… was a puritan and believed that all of Duncan’s work should be condemned because it showed too much love of the human body – especially the male body and especially my body – so that chapel became like a small room for putting rubbish in… The chapel was eventually restored perfectly.

Some years later, Roche again modelled as Christ for The Ascending Christ or, as he prefers to call it, ‘The Mercurial Christ’.

Soon after their initial meeting in 1946, Roche moved into the flat owned by Marjorie Strachey (sister of Lytton Strachey) in Taviton Street, London, where Grant had the use of a room for three days a week. Although still serving as a priest at St Mary’s, Cadogan Gardens, Roche often wore a sailor suit (a habit begun during the War) to meet Grant at Victoria Station:

PR: I wasn’t allowed to join the navy as I was a seminarist at the time but the military police – the naval police – would spot me and say ‘Where’s your pass?’ and I’d say ‘I haven’t got one’. So, I would then be charged the next day and have to go to Bow Street to answer questions, and they would confiscate my able-bodied seaman dress … I always managed to find somewhere to buy another one!

Roche’s friendship with Grant led to friction with Vanessa Bell who saw him as an intruder in her relationship with Grant:

PR: Vanessa was old enough to be my grandmother but, to my surprise, she was immediately extremely jealous. If I’d been older I would have done what Edward Le Bas did:… Edward saw at once that he had to butter up Vanessa… and it worked, so the three of them – Duncan, Vanessa and Edward – became a threesome and they met often but I was not allowed anywhere near Vanessa. Indeed, when Bell was at Charleston with Grant, Roche had to camp on the Downs behind the house.

It was while living at Taviton Street that Roche, an excellent cook, witnessed the disastrous results of Marjorie Strachey’s culinary attempts which resulted in setting the kitchen alight. It was also with Strachey that Roche had good-humoured arguments over religion:

PR: Bloomsbury was always very anti-clerical, especially anti-Catholic – and I was a Catholic… I thought I would convert her so I gave her the autobiography of St Thérèse de Lisieux… [but] Marjorie only said, ‘little ninny, she should have known better!’

Roche remained at Taviton Street for eight years during which period he gave up his religious duties. Believing himself to be a satyr, Roche embarked on a series of affairs. One relationship in 1953 with Mary Blundell, a physicist at London University, resulted in a son, Tobit. In 1954, Roche married Clarissa Tanner and together they had four children: Pandora, Martin/Potie, Vanessa and Cordelia/Mitie.

To adapt to life outside the priesthood, Roche travelled throughout Europe. Grant encouraged him to start writing and, in 1952, Roche published a book of fables, The Rat and the Convent Dove and, two years later, published his first novel, O Pale Galilean. Roche was then invited to join the English Department at Smith College, Massachusetts, where he was befriended by Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes.

Roche turned to translating the Classics and, during his career, produced translations of Euripides, Sophocles, Aeschylus, Plautus and Sappho. In 1958, attempting to find a less expensive place to live, the Roche family moved to Nevis, West Indies, and then to Taxco, Mexico. In the same year, Roche was awarded the Bollingen Foundation Fellowship and published his translation of The Oedipus Plays of Sophocles. In 1967 he wrote the screenplay, based on his translation, for the Universal Studios’ film Oedipus the King which starred Orson Welles, Christopher Plummer and Lili Palmer:

PR: The film was shot at Dodona, north-west Greece… I would be sitting there with the Greek text, the English translation… I put myself among the chorus … Duncan was there, he became a kind of mascot, he would roam around the place with a paintbrush and maybe a small canvas and do a little bit of painting here and there.

Roche then published his translation of The Orestes Plays of Aeschylus (1962), a second novel, Vessel of Dishonour (1964) – considered immoral by some within the Catholic Church – and the poetry collections All Things Considered (1966) and To Tell the Truth (1967). In London, he embarked upon a series of poetry readings – entitled ‘The Poet and the Actor’ – alongside such actors as Sybil Thorndike, Flora Robson and Diana Rigg.

During the 1970s, Roche received several awards and Fellowships in Europe and America. He recorded Paul Roche – A Poet. A Man. A Mind. and, in 1972, Death at Fun City, which resulted in Roche being interviewed by Gloria Swanson. He became poet-in-residence at the California Institute of the Arts and taught at other American academic establishments including Centenary College, New Jersey; Albion College, Michigan; Emory & Henry College, Virginia, and the University of Notre Dame, Indiana. After being divorced from Clarissa in 1983, Roche moved to Soller, Mallorca, where he continued to work on translations and published With Duncan Grant in Southern Turkey (1982), The Bible’s Greatest Stories (1990), A Visit to India (1990) and, in 1998, Cooking with a Poet and More Cooking with a Poet.

Roche recalls how, decades before, he had been captivated by Grant’s distinctly artistic voice:

PR: I came to learn that the way Duncan spoke was the way he painted: the words chosen tentatively as if they were colours put down almost with apology lest they change everything.

When Roche had first met Grant, he had decided not to disclose his religious background. When he did finally reveal the truth, Grant was amazed. It led him to write a novella which claims that their love was similar to that of Patroclus and Narcissus. This is an apposite point to consider the true nature of the relationship between Roche and Grant – about which there has been much speculation. That the two men loved each other deeply is evidenced by their unwavering friendship which lasted over three decades – but Roche admits only to limited sexual activity:

PR: So what can a homosexual do for a heterosexual? One thing he could do was save me the bother of finding a girl to make love [to]… the craze to find a woman would be put off for the time being. That’s what a heterosexual can be given by a homosexual. You see, I had no sexual feelings whatsoever towards Duncan. I know he was charming, good-looking and I loved him more than anyone on this earth but as for… having any kind of direct sex with him, no… You see Duncan was such an honest person, and one of the last things he said to me, either before or after the big Paris exhibition of Cézanne – and he said it at least twenty or thirty or forty times in his lifetime – [was] ‘Don, I suppose you know that I love you?’ And then another time, he said, ‘As for anything sexual, forget about it, it wasn’t really about sex at all, our relationship… that’s a side-track, nothing to do with what I felt for you and you came to feel for me.’ He made that very clear.

It was not a gay relationship in the modern sense – a point underscored, by implication, in Grant’s novella. Greek love between two men consisted of the older man guiding and educating the younger man. The death of a young male lover, in Greek myth, symbolised the ‘death’ of a boy who is ‘reborn’ as a man and who then marries and has a family. Grant was Patroclus, originally the best friend and lover of Achilles, while Narcissus – Roche – was notoriously cruel to his lovers. Roche recalls how Grant certainly educated him:

PR: I was… basically uneducated. I’d never been to the ballet or… the opera, or concerts or anything which is part of being a cultured person… so what Duncan did for me was to complete my education, and reading too… We went to… a whole series of operas being done in London… Duncan took me to all of them… and ballet too: the Ballets Russes played in London, and I was very, very struck by the Ballets Russes.

Grant got on well with Roche’s wife and family; indeed, it was Clarissa who encouraged Roche to visit Grant soon after Bell’s death, in 1961, telling him that ‘Duncan will be in a dreadful state and you must go and console him’. Roche recalls that Grant was consumed with guilt at not having wanted to sleep with Bell after their affair ended in 1918:

PR: Duncan was desperate to get free of [the affair] and I remember on one occasion… he was talking to Macdonald and to me, in Bond Street; that was the day he decided that he wasn’t expected anymore to feel guilty about not making love to Vanessa. He felt so free as a result.

After Bell’s death, Charleston had begun to deteriorate – a situation that worsened after Grace Higgens retired. Clarissa agreed that the Roche family should return from America; they settled at The Stables, Aldermaston, which Roche set about substantially improving.

With Clarissa’s blessing, Roche frequently visited Grant and cared from him as he grew increasingly frail. Together they visited Turkey in 1973 and, in 1978, spent six months in Tangier where Roche diligently nursed Grant through near fatal pneumonia. The way Clarissa and her family felt about Grant is revealed by their willingness to care for him, at their home, in the last months of his life, so that he could die surrounded by people who loved him. Grant died in Roche’s bedroom on 8 May 1978:

PR: I could see that he was in a very bad way, breathing heavily… Dr Cooper said to me, ‘I can’t save him this time, he’s too far gone, and it’s much better to let him go’. So I agreed to that. Duncan lay on the bed… I came up to him the night before he died… this is what I think I said, or the gist of it… ‘Duncan, you have nothing to worry about, whatever you have done in life that you are sorry for, God loves you, whatever you’ve done, He loves you. You don’t have to worry about anything. You’re in His hands, and so you can sleep peacefully and everything is ok… Don’t think that God is angry with anything… He’s not, He loves you.’ Duncan was incapable of speaking… so I quietly left the room … when I came back in the morning… I realised Duncan was dead. That was an enormous shock to me… Pan[dora] painted a most beautiful coffin… and that’s the coffin Duncan was buried in at Firle… I went to Firle to be at the funeral, but I suddenly found that I couldn’t stand, every time I stood up I simply collapsed onto the floor.

The numerous obituaries of Roche celebrate his literary achievements and his friendship with Grant. He takes with him much first-hand knowledge of life at Charleston in the 1960s and 1970s which leaves Bloomsbury that much poorer. But, thanks to his generosity in agreeing to be interviewed in his last weeks, we at least have his final thoughts on what was unquestionably a full life.

Written and transcribed by Paul E.H. Davis


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